Letter to Thomas Jefferson
On The Theory of Government
Introduction by Sherwood V. Smith
The history of this letter, written by Thomas Paine before or
during 1789 (the date on page one is not in Paine's hand),
illustrates one of the most interesting characteristics of the
historic biographer. That is, the bias that almost all biographers
demonstrate in favor of their subject.
Gilbert Chinard, in his biography of Thomas Jefferson, thinking
that Jefferson was the author, declared the theory presented in this
letter the "key" to Democracy. He also thought it original
with Jefferson and that it presented a new, original approach to the
science of government. That was before it was pointed out, by
others, that this letter was authored by Thomas Paine. After his
mistake was discovered, Professor Chinard changed his position and
attributed all the ideas contained in this letter to almost every
man of renown that ever existed.
What the letter really does is present the theory of government as
a logical system. Paine's ideas can be presented graphically as Venn
Diagrams, which is one way of describing, graphically, the basics of
set and logic theory. Let's see how this works. This letter
describes rights in two ways: Natural Rights and Civil Rights in
which Civil Rights are a subset of Natural Rights. Also it's
important to point out that the power of the civil authority should
reach no lurther than that necessary for protection or enforcement
of those Civil Rights.
Another point that I like to make concerning this letter is that
Paine makes references only to "persons." This word
selection shows that he was inclusive in that he was using a word
that included women and children. Paine does not make reference to "20
white men," "20 masters," "20 gentlemen,"
or "20 plantation owners." This is consistent with all of
Paine's other works which are also inclusive.
Jefferson would have used "men" in the exclusive sense.
We know this because he said elsewhere that: "Were our state a
pure democracy there would still be excluded from our deliberations
women, who, to prevent depravation of morals and ambiguity of
issues, should not mix promiscuously in gatherings of men."
To: Thomas Jefferson * 1789 * Theory
After I got home, being alone and wanting amusement I sat Down to
explain to myself (for there is such a thing) my ideas of natural
and civil rights and the distinction between them -- I send them to
you to see how nearly we agree.
Suppose 20 persons, strangers to each other, to meet in a Country
not before inhabited. Each would be a Sovereign in his own Natural
right. His will would be his Law, but his power, in many cases,
inadequate to his right and the consequences would be that each
might be exposed, not only to each other, but to the other nineteen.
It would then occur to them that their condition would be much
improved, if a way could be Devised to exchange that quantity of
Danger into so much protection, so that each individual Should
possess the strength of the whole Number.
As all their rights, in the first case, are natural rights, and the
exercise of these rights supported only by their own natural
individual power, they would begin by distinguishing between those
rights they could individually exercise fully and perfectly and
those they could not.
Of the first kind are the rights of thinking, speaking, forming and
giving opinions, and perhaps all those which can be fully exercised
by the individual without the aid of exterior assistance or in other
words, rights of personal competency. Of the second kind are those
of personal protection, of acquiring and possessing property, in the
exercise of which the individual natural power is less than the
Having drawn this line they agree to retain individually the first
Class of Rights or those of personal Competency; and to detach from
their personal possession the second Class, or those of defective
power and to accept in lieu thereof a right to the whole power
produced by a condensation of all the parts. These I conceive to be
civil rights or rights of Compact, and see distinguishable from
Natural rights, because in the one we act wholly in our own person,
in the other we agree not to do so, but are under the guarantee of
It therefore follows that the more of those imperfect natural
rights, or rights of imperfect power we give up and thus exchange
the more security we possess, and as the word liberty is often
mistakenly put for security Mr. Wilson has confused his Argument by
confounding the terms.
But ft does not follow that the more natural rights of every kind
we resign the more security we possess, -- because if we resign
those of the first class we may suffer much by the exchange, for
where the right and the power are equal with each other in the
individual naturally they ought to rest there.
Mr. Wilson must have some allusion to this distinction or his
position would be subject to the inference you Draw from him.
I consider the individual sovereignty of the States retained under
the Act of Confederation to be of the second Class of rights. It
becomes dangerous because it is defective in the power necessary to
support it. It answers the pride and purpose of a few Men in each
State -- but the State collectively is injured by it.